In the 1830s, the success of the Reform Act had led to a huge interest in liberal politics. The traditional hangout of the Whig’s (later to become the Liberal Party) was Brooks’s Club, but at the time they had a long waiting list and no interest in increasing the number of members. Thus, a new club was formed in 1836 and named “The Reform Club” in memory of the Reform Act. The building was designed by Sir Charles Barry and was finished in 1841.
As this site is about the overall club experience, we usually try to avoid giving architectural lectures. It is not always easy as the club houses of St James’s is some of the most impressive buildings in London – and with the Reform Club it is neigh on impossible to avoid. Not only because the building is so astonishing, but also because the rest of the club experience there is a bit, well, bland.
The building is said to have been based on Palazzo Farnese in Rome. At least in terms of the facade, that is an understatement. Without a visual reference you’d be hard pressed to say if you are looking at the Reform or the Palazzo Farnese from a little further away (the latter is slightly larger).
As you enter the building you may have to squeeze past old ladies arguing with the porters about their mail – some older members still use the club as their primary postal address. Having navigated this modest of obstacles, you enter an atrium of enormous proportions and splendour – only slightly let down by the fact that what appears to be wonderful mosaic porcelain tiles on the floor are in fact linoleum titles (which in fairness was a posher material when installed and also does has the effect of reducing the acoustic noise significantly). This space also serves as a rather magnificent bar area.
On the ground floor you will also find the dining room – or “the Coffee Room” as it is called at the Reform. The long stairs leading upstairs have enormous mirrors aligned so as to give an impression of endless space. Ionic columns support an upper gallery of which you’ll find the magnificent library and smoking room.
While other clubs were struggling during the 1990s, the Reform were prospering. It had allowed women members as early as 1983 and had attracted some very high-profile members. Today politically neutral, it attracted members across the political spectre.
Today, however, the club – excepting the architecture – seems a bit charmless. The Garrick attracts the authors and artists, the Carlton Club the enthusiastic Tories, the National Liberal Club ambassadors and senior civil servants; The In & Out attracts navy officers and posh foreign nobility, the Royal Automobile Club attracts people who want to show off their club. The Athenium is the home of the academia, and the Travellers Club is mostly for spies or for those hunting ditto. It seems that no niche was left for the Reform. You will find Liberals and Tories, authors and professors there, but it never really seems to be the home of any of them. It seems that illustrative for the state of things that the club, a few years ago, was closed for a month because management agreed to hire the entire building out to Cartier as some sort of corporate venue. It is impossible to imaging something similar happening at the Carlton Club, the Garrick or the NLC.
As a consequence, the club has seen bit of an exodus of members. One long standing member of some importance is said to have been joined by more than 100 members when he moved to the Saville Club (his move also incidentally de facto ended a regular security lecture event at the Reform).
The parliamentary reforms of the 1830s are not very contentious these days. The Reform sorely needs to find a soul and purpose again. It could be – should be – one of the most magnificent clubs in London.